Chatty History Recommendations
January 16, 2019 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm stuck at home with a broken ankle and need some good book recommendations. I'm looking for history books that aren't stuffy and boring. I like reading books that are engaging and have conversational style of writing. I'm mainly after history (of anything) recommendations but if you have any other non fiction recommendations, please feel free to include them.

Examples of what I've read that I think fall into this style are (in rough order of my favourites):

Mary Beard - Pompeii - Life of a Roman Town, SPQR
Barbara Mertz - Red Land, Black Land; Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs
Ruth Goodman - How to be a Tudor, How to be a Victorian etc
Mark Kurlansky - Salt, Cod, Milk etc
Bee Wilson - Consider the Fork, First Bite
Ian Mortimer - Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England etc
Bill Bryson - All of his books
Stephen Fry - Mythos, Heros
Deborah Blum - The Poisoner's Handbook
Helen Czerski - Storm in a Teacup
Joann Fletcher - The Story of Egypt
Therese Oneill - Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners
Neil Shubin - Your Inner Fish, The Universe Within
Lucy Worsley - Jane Austen at Home, Queen Victoria

I don't particulary like the following authors:

Mary Roach - I find her style hit and miss
Erik Larson - I think I would enjoy his style but the subjects are too intense for me right now
posted by poxandplague to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite

Gary B. Nash The Unknown American Revolution.
Everything that would not fit into your high school history book including why the Continental Army was not paid.
Under $10 used on Amazon.
posted by Raybun at 8:08 PM on January 16, 2019

Me again. William Cronon: Changes in the Land. Indians, Colonists and the ecology of New England. If you enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel, you will enjoy this book.
posted by Raybun at 8:15 PM on January 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Reveille in Washington by Margaret Leech
The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
The Pax Britannica trilogy by James/Jan Morris
Voltaire in Love by Nancy Mitford -- indeed any of Nancy Mitford's biographies
The Stammering Century by Gilbert Seldes
posted by Hypatia at 8:19 PM on January 16, 2019

I’ll read anything that Judith Flanders writes. She has a booked called The Making of Home about home became home in the West, and another about avictorian homes in particular. You can google some samples of her writing, including columns for the Guardian, to see if that’s chatty enough for you.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:24 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Antonia Fraser, Love and Louis XIV
posted by Lycaste at 8:28 PM on January 16, 2019

MFK Fisher, if only for Consider the Oyster, but she's got a whole whack of books about the history of eating and cooking and stuff. I think some of them might be "history-inspired" or something, but I think some of her books would be right up your alley.
posted by rhizome at 8:39 PM on January 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's been years, but I remember quite enjoying Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons, and Herbcraft by Dale Pendell, which, despite it's encyclopedic structure, is chatty and anecdotal. There are also two sequels.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 8:40 PM on January 16, 2019

Barbara W. Tuchman - The Guns of August
John McPhee - Annals of the Former World
Michael W. Twitty - The Cooking Gene
posted by nickggully at 9:11 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm currently listening to Coyote America and it's pretty amazing. It's not exactly uplifting - there's a lot of awful shit the US government has done re: wildlife - but I'm not an audiobook sort of person and this has been very engaging, so I assume if I had a physical copy I would've tore through it already.
posted by curious nu at 9:17 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is a good time to recommend one of my favorite books of all time, Musica Practica by Michael Chanan, which is a history of music's role and use in society.
posted by rhizome at 9:19 PM on January 16, 2019

I'm presently reading The Statesman and the Storyteller by Mark Zwonitzer and am enjoying it.

I recently read The Fall of Japan by William Craig.

I always stump for You're Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger by Roger Hall.

Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll was quite good.

And I highly recommend Edmund Morris's trilogy about Theodore Roosevelt, which opens (naturally enough) with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
posted by bryon at 10:26 PM on January 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Book On the Bookshelf by Henry Petrowski.

Whenever I recommend this book, I say, "It's a history of bookshelves!" and then I say "No, I know that sounds boring, but it's REALLY INTERESTING!" "no, come back!"

But it is!
posted by Jenny'sCricket at 2:55 AM on January 17, 2019

Simon Winchester, Exactly
posted by flabdablet at 4:06 AM on January 17, 2019

Speaking of TR, Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough.

Also by McCullough, 1776 and The Great Bridge.

On FDR, Geoffrey Ward's Before the Trumpet (love it!) and A First Class Temperament.
posted by jgirl at 4:15 AM on January 17, 2019

Dava Sobel writes a bunch of books in this area and based on your likes, I think you’d like her. Longitude is a good start, and Galileo’s Daughter is my personal favorite of her books I’ve read.

Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone is a neat story about one very rare book that was widely thought to be completely lost, and in the process touches on a lot of other aspects of European history.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:58 AM on January 17, 2019

I imagine you'd probably enjoy Low Life by Luc Sante.
posted by saladin at 6:53 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. I read half the book out loud to my husband because it was so funny and snarky. It's about the history of water development in the American West.
posted by carolr at 7:00 AM on January 17, 2019

- The Alchemy of Air, Thomas Hager - the best book about fertilizer you'll read this year
- The Vicotrian Internet, Tom Standage --telegraphs: how do they work? (and what did they mean to the people who used them?)
- Where the Wild Coffee Grows, Jeff Koehler - a delightful history of the ancient origins (and modern cultivation ) of coffee. If you're a tea drinker: Darjeeling, by the same author.
- Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, Tom Holland - 'if you liked SPQR, you may also enjoy...' (see also: Rubicon, by the same author)
- Hubub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England (1600-1700), Emily Cockayne - if you want to be thankful for indoor plumbing and pre-bottled milk
- Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent - why did stop drinking, and why did we start drinking again?
- The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York, Matthew Goodman -- newspaper history + MAN BATS (but really a history of the people involved, and the audiences that fell for the hoax)
- River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Rebecca Solnit - a history of early photography through the lens (ahem) of one weird guy, and the search to discover whether a horse ever has all four hooves off the ground at the same time
- Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz - what's the deal with civil war reënactors?
posted by cjelli at 7:29 AM on January 17, 2019

Blue Latitudes by Tony Horowitz. Follows in Captain Cook's footsteps fantastic read.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson. Great history of the sinking of the Lusitania. Fun fictional follow up The Glass Ocean by Williams, Willig and White.
posted by danapiper at 8:14 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it, but Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature, a biography of the once-world-famous nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, sounds like it would be up your alley.
posted by praemunire at 8:25 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I found 1491 and its companion 1493 to be fascinating reading.
posted by elmay at 8:52 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Confederates in the Attic—fascinating and very readable.
posted by bookmammal at 9:13 AM on January 17, 2019

I liked these books by Victoria Finlay:

Color: A Natural History of the Palette
Jewels: A Secret History
posted by ElleElle at 11:43 AM on January 17, 2019

Chatty history is my favorite! Here are a few that I've enjoyed:

The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom and Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court by Lucy Worsley

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

Seconding the recommendation above for Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Frasier, and will also add a plug for her The Wives of Henry VIII

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler

Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentlemen Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail by Stephen R. Brown

Qualified recommendation for The Royals by Kitty Kelley-more gossip than history, but extremely entertaining!
posted by LadyNibbler at 12:19 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy. Exhaustively researched and very funny.
posted by ananci at 1:00 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Storm Before the Storm by Mike Duncan (history of the later Roman Republic; I'm also a huge fan of his Revolutions podcast)
posted by epersonae at 3:15 PM on January 17, 2019

Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It's one of those "read out the interesting bits to anyone within earshot" books.
posted by kjs4 at 3:23 PM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Margalit Fox's The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, on the decipherment of Linear B, is both very readable and a great chance to learn about the oft-unsung hero of that effort, Alice Kober.

I've just started The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, and it's looking to be in that same good vein.
posted by the sobsister at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2019

I love this genre!

The Splendid Century: Life in the France of Louis XIV by Warren Lewis

Anything by Robert Massie, but especially Nicholas and Alexandra.
posted by Concordia at 1:33 AM on January 19, 2019

« Older Do you use all 5 Burners in a Cooktop ?   |   Out-of-the-box alternatives to #bookstagram Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.